My Misspent Youth — Detective Comics by Harlan Ellison and Gene Colan

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

Harlan Ellison was good at a lot of things. An awful lot of things. Meeting deadlines was not one of those things. More accurately, writing just about anything in a timely fashion wasn’t one of those things. This wasn’t a secret. Ellison knew it, too. So when he promised his friend Julius Schwartz, a mentor for many in the science fiction community and a renowned editor at DC Comics, that he would write a Batman story, he insisted that he not have a deadline. A deadline was merely something he would miss. By most accounts, it was 1971 when Ellison made the agreement to pen a tale of the caped crusader. The date the story was finally published is not in dispute; the cover of Detective Comics #567 bears the date October 1986. Ellison took so long that Schwartz was no longer the editor of the Batman titles. Schwart hadn’t been the editor of the Batman titles for about seven years, as a matter of fact.

Ellison’s spin with Batman bears the very Ellison title “The Night of Thanks, But No Thanks!” Boasting pencils by the great Gene Colan, the story tracks through one night in Gotham City as Batman makes the rounds, looking for miscreants and evildoers, determined to mete out justice. All the while, quotations from the likes of Confucius and philosopher Eric Hoffer burble up in the captions.

Ellison’s twist — his gag, really — is that Batman’s compulsive need to throw some punches and maybe a batarang or two is constantly thwarted. Maybe his role as rescuer is usurped because a old woman accosted by muggers can defend herself. Or maybe he’s entirely misinterpreted something as a crime, such as the bedraggled fellow jimmying his way into a vehicle not because he’s a car thief but in response to the common mistake of looking his own keys inside of it.

It’s just a little wisp of comic. If not for the titan of letters who signed his name to it, this issue of Detective Comics would be easy to forget. There’s certainly no indication that fifteen years of anguished invention and painstaking finesse went into it. But it’s also joyfully tickled with the tropes and dynamics of superhero comics in a way rarely achieved in the decades of grim-and-gritty depictions of Batman that soon followed. Informally, this was the last issue of Detective Comics before the reinvented version of the DC Universe that launched out of the monumental Crisis on Infinite Earths limited series. Ellison might not have had a real deadline, but it does feel like his Batman story was delivered at the last possible moment that it was viable.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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